Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bush Administration Lists Polar Bears as Threatened Species

A polar bear
As many as two-thirds of the world's polar bears may disappear within the next 50 years, as Arctic sea ice melts due to global warming.
Photo: Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons

After months of delay, the Bush Administration will list polar bears as a threatened species, but there's doubt the decision will actually result in additional meaningful protection for the Arctic icon in an era of global warming.

The court-ordered decision came at the behest of environmental groups that first petitioned, then sued, to see a decision made.

The decision is the culmination of a three-year legal and bureaucratic saga with potentially big implications for climate change policy.

“This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, and lead author of the 2005 petition. “It’s not too late to save the polar bear, and we'll keep fighting to ensure that the polar bear gets the help it needs through the full protections of the Endangered Species Act. The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service listing should trigger a range of conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act, including possibly protecting Arctic territory coveted by oil and gas companies, or limiting greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat at the Earth's surface, fuel global warming and lead to the loss of Arctic sea ice.

"Should" is the operative word. The Bush Administration is arguing that existing legal protections for polar bears are about as good as it gets, and that the listing will neither inspire new greenhouse gas policy nor immediately lead to the designation of new protected habitat.

“After months of delay, the Interior Department has finally recognized that polar bears are on the brink of extinction," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said. "But the administration’s decision is riddled with loopholes, caveats, and backhanded language that could actually undermine protections for the polar bear and other species."

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